Missouri family courts educate on self-representation

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 | 7:06 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA —Four years after it was created, the Missouri family courts' online system for teaching people how to represent themselves is getting good reviews.

Seventy percent of users who have responded to an online survey say the Representing Yourself website is easy to navigate, and a greater number say the information is easy to understand.  More than 60 percent say the site has helped them better prepare for handling their own cases, according to a news release from the Committee on Access to Family Courts.

More than half of the users earn less than $20,000 per year, while 20 percent earn between $20,000 and $30,000. Seventy-five percent of users support children on these salaries.

According to previous Missourian reporting, the number of people representing themselves — pro se cases — increased nationally to 24,319 in 2010 from 20,545 in 2007, according to a report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. (Numbers were not available in Missouri and Boone County because of inconsistencies in case filing.)

As the number of pro se cases increases, the Committee on Access to Family Courts has been trying to make more resources available and improve those already available on the website. 

Before the site included legal forms, some pro se litigants would buy forms offline, which were from other states and not even applicable to Missouri courts, said Boone County Associate Circuit Judge Leslie Schneider, a member of the committee.

In the past, when people have shown up to court with the wrong documents, Schneider and other judges have dismissed them.

The majority of users utilize the website's legal forms for dissolving a marriage. If they don't have children or property, the case is less complex, and there is a good chance they won't make mistakes in preparing their case, Lori Levine, co-chair of the committee, said.

In addition to forms for dissolving a marriage, the website offers forms for filing motions or petitions related to:  

  • Child custody (and support)
  • Modification of child support
  • Family access (visitation)
  • Name change
  • Child custody
  • Paternity  

"If they come (to court) with a complicated matter, it won't make a difference," Schneider said, referring to the use of these forms.  She advises people with complex cases, such as those involving child support and division of property, to seek legal representation as they are not familiar enough with the court system to handle cases successfully on their own. 

Many times, litigants will start a case on their own then have to hire an attorney to fix the problems they created, such as missing forms or missing information within the forms.  

When these problems arise, judges have to look closer at the cases, which lengthens the process, and court clerks aren't allowed to give legal advice.  

"How smoothly the cases are presented makes a difference," Levine said. 

To improve case presentations, Mid-Missouri Legal Services offers two-hour clinics to help people prepare their cases, said Susan Lutton, the organization's executive director. At the clinics, which take place from 1 to 3 p.m. on Fridays, advice is available about: presenting a case in court; filling out forms correctly; and filing a claim.

Levine advises people to try to find an attorney who will represent them at a low cost or free — pro-bono — before assuming they can't afford it.  

While the costs of hiring an attorney may compel people to represent themselves, they do not have to go at it alone for the entire process.  If litigants defending themselves need help on only a portion of the case, a process known as limited scope representation allows an attorney to handle part of a case, as long as there is a contract between the attorney and the client outlining specific duties, while complying with the code of ethics, Levine said.  

Every quarter, the committee looks at the feedback from users who completed an online questionnaire. This year, the committee hopes to continue website improvements by making the legal forms savable so that users don't have to complete them in one sitting.  

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